For the first time, my husband and I did not have turkey for our Thanksgiving meal, choosing instead butter-soft filet mignon for our dinner-for-two this year. However, tradition is much on my mind.
As US embassies, foreign service families, and ex-pats of all kinds celebrate America’s national holiday abroad, the events of the day are inevitably influenced by the overseas environment. Here are some Thanksgiving insider stories drawn from my own experience and from the extensive oral history collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST).
The tastes of home
When you’re far from home, it can be the small private traditions that matter. For example, the 1960 Thanksgiving for the international student body at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies(SAIS) in Bologna almost didn’t happen because celery — the essential ingredient in my mother’s turkey stuffing — could not be found locally, and it took an all-day trip to two American military bases to save the day.
The eight-hour, 400-mile shopping trip resulted in a splendid Thanksgiving dinner that was a hit among the students and faculty who gathered at the Bologna Center on Friday, November 25, although the canned cranberry jelly got more attention than the celery dressing.
Jane Kelly Amerson López, EMBASSY KID (publication pending)
Sometimes, as ADST’s files reveal, Thanksgiving creates an opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and understanding.
Ambassador James F. Creagan, who was Deputy Chief of Mission at the American embassy to Vatican City in the late 1980s, drew on turkey, stuffing, and 100 proof Wild Turkey Bourbon to negotiate a ceasefire between rival parties in Mozambique’s bitter civil war.
They had big headaches the next day, but they signed a ceasefire and applauded Thanksgiving.
Ambassador Joyce E. Leader, who was Consul General in Marseilles, France prior to becoming ambassador to Guinea, was faced with the challenge of fitting in multiple Thanksgiving dinners put on by clubs of Americans who’d stayed on after WWII. There were two clubs in Monaco, more in Nice and Cannes, and three in Marseilles.
Nobody knew how to make a pumpkin pie, but let me tell you there are more ways to service pumpkin than I ever imagined.
And sometimes, history continues to be made despite the American holiday.
Arriving in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa, the day before Thanksgiving, Theodore Boyd was quickly thrust in to Congo’s political upheaval.
When I got up on Thanksgiving Day and there was no one on the streets I said, “Oh, that’s okay because it’s a holiday.” Then it dawned on me subsequently that the Congolese didn’t observe Thanksgiving so I went over to the embassy and they said, “Come on in we need you, we’ve just had a coup.”
Our accountant’s husband, J, is a huge Christmas lights fan. When they lived in our neighborhood, the rooftop Santa and reindeer were on their garage by Thanksgiving, along with an enormous collection of other sparkling, flashing, and inflatable decorations. E, J, and their great kids were the heart of their street, and we were sorry when they moved to a nearby neighborhood. However, we understood: the larger lot gave J more room for Christmas. When we drove by over the next holidays, we spotted their house two blocks away.
Spreading holiday cheer for more to hear
However, E and J’s hearts are, in a turnaround from the Grinch, two sizes too big, and the family’s passion for Christmas has grown way beyond their home. J is now the architect of a one-mile, drive-through holiday lights display in nearby Okeeheelee Park that runs weekends through January 2. Lights 4 Hope, the non-profit the family helped establish four years ago, uses the funds generated by the $15/car entrance fee to spread happiness and joy year-round to families coping with their child’s critical illness or life-changing physical changes.
Wonder if Lights 4 Hope has made a difference? These children’s delight says it all. Lots more of these uplifting photos and stories on Instagram.
You can be part of this joyful mission
To learn more about Lights 4 Hope, including how to get tickets for this year’s display or to become a sponsor or supporter, click on their website here. You can also follow Lights 4 Hope on Facebook or on Instagram. ’Tis the season, after all!
Pandemic or not, this drive-through format is a perfect way to end 2021 in a safe and inspiring way.
My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.
Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?
All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.
Pizza buonviaggio party on my 9th birthday
Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.
In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.
My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.
You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.
Time to go for the gusto again
We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.
A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.
“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.
I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.
Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.
When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!
I crossed a new fitness threshold last week when I added Tabata — a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) protocol — to my water workout. My 30 minute workout not only boosted my cardiovascular system, but also strengthened my core, my arms, and my legs. And it put me on Cloud Nine for the rest of the morning.
And, of course I sweated (pardon the clickbait!), but being in the water happily masked that fact and kept me cool while I amped up the volume on my workout.
How HIIT Works
You’ll be working at a very intense level and then backing off for a slower recovery period, followed by another round of high intensity.
When I was a certified fitness instructor, I incorporated HIIT segments in the cardio portions of my classes, both in the studio and in the pool. It’s a relative newcomer to the exercise business, made popular by its efficiency — it HIITs a lot of fitness targets in a relatively short amount of time — and the variety it gives to a workout.
Researchers have found that HIIT improves both cardiovascular and muscular performance for trained athletes as well as individuals with coronary artery disease. I wanted to add it to my exercise routine in the water which was feeling a bit boring. When exercise isn’t fun, it becomes work.
The HIIT Tabata program
I thought that tabata might be a Portuguese dance, like capoeira. But, no, it’s the last name of the Japanese scientist who developed it in 1996.
Tabata training was discovered by Japanese scientist Dr. Izumi Tabata and a team of researchers from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.
The structure of Tabata is 8 rounds of 20 seconds fast, 10 seconds slow. You can do any sort of movement as long as you can keep from flailing on the fast part. In the pool, I jogged, did jumping jacks and cross-country skiing, and leg lifts, working my muscles as my arms and legs pushed through the water and working my heart and lungs as I varied the tempo.
Exercise in a given Tabata workout lasts only four minutes, but it’s likely to be one of the longest four minutes you’ve ever endured.
High intensity workouts can leave you with a nice buzz. Yesterday’s 30-minute Tabata session in the pool left me feeling confident, calm, and serene. It’s endorphins, researchers say. However, I will listen to the experts (and my husband) and not burn myself out.
How will you incorporate HIIT in your next walk or other workout?
It takes a village to raise good writers, and the Florida Writers Association’s annual flagship writing competition, the Royal Palm Literary Awards (RPLA), engages hundreds of “writers helping writers” annually. This year, 25 dedicated RPLA coordinators and nearly 200 judges reviewed an astounding 577 entries, providing in-depth critique geared toward helping each writer continue to improve in our craft. There are no RPLA losers.
However, there are winners, and this year’s were announced during a live Zoom event on October 16, beginning with the Grand Awards.
RPLA Published Book of the Year 2021
Barbara Rein’s Tales from the Eerie Canal won top honors as the RPLA Published Book of the Year. Barbara writes horror short stories with delightfully creepy twists, and quirky personal essays inspired by the oddities that bounce her way. She admits to being addicted to dachshunds.
RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year 2021
Dana J.Summer’sFrom Hell’s Heart was awarded the RPLA Unpublished Book of the Year. Dana is an editorial cartoonist and comic strip artist turned author. He has written five novels and lives with his wife in Orlando.
RPLA Children’s Book of the Year 2021
Arielle Houghee’s Pling’s Party won Children’s Book of the Year. Arielle, owner of Orange Blossom Books, is a five-time RPLA-winning author, editor, speaker, and executive vice president of the Florida Writers Association. Arielle’s expertise also helped me update this very blog last year!
The Candice Coghill Memorial Award for Youth
NM Collet’s Ode to Rain, submitted in the category of Unpublished Poetry, ages 12 to 15, won this year’s youth award. This award was established in memory of Candice Coghill, who was an active member of Florida Writers Association, a youth writing advocate, and a tireless contributor to the writing community.
RPLA Winners 2021
This year’s roster of winners includes Al Pessin, a five-time RPLA winner and fellow critique group member, whose thriller BLOWBACK — set in Syria, the second in the Task Force Epsilon series — won Silver. A well-deserved win! I wrote about SANDBLAST, the first in the series that takes place in Afghanistan, move over Homeland, here comes Sandblast. Order your books, check out the reviews and read this longtime journalist’s thoughtful piece on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan here.
[Whew! I’ve been singing the ABC song all week as I worked on this little project!]
How great to celebrate these authors and the Florida Writers Association, truly “writers helping writers.” Here’s to gathering in person next year to celebrate those who garner the 2022 RPLA wins. The process begins in February!
In the aftermath of the exit of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, an enraged mob surrounded the headquarters of his dreaded secret police, the Seguridad Nacional. Hundreds of Venezuelans had disappeared into that fortress. The National Guard, a military force sent in to control the crowd, fired instead on the fortress when the trapped secret police began shooting from inside. After the military smoked out the secret police, prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families. Looters sacked and set fire to the building.
When a couple of Dad’s colleagues investigated the damage, they found several letters to Embassy staff that the Seguridad Nacional had intercepted and opened, including one from Dad’s boss’ mother saying she was coming for a visit. She arrived three days later.
The Seguridad Nacional was no more, and the police were in hiding. A group of military men and civilians from the underground movement asserted some control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days. Hundreds died, and thousands more were wounded. Slowly, looting ebbed.
A fragile democracy takes shape
A fragile democracy took shape. The leaders of the three dominant political parties created a governing body, the Junta Patriótica, which the United States formally recognized. Previously clandestine revolutionaries took positions of leadership in the government, media, and the business community.
For the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers. Mom and Dad could once again use the telephone without fear of being listened to. Trying to reach my father at the Embassy one afternoon, Mom had been told by a harsh, Spanish-speaking male voice, “This is the Seguridad Nacional. You do not have anything to tell your husband.”
The new political scheme gave Dad’s job enhanced meaning. He had made many good friends among the media in producing a USIS (as USIA was called overseas) television program, “Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro,” “Venezuela Looks to Its Future.” Now he could enjoy the freedom of tapping into a larger pool of journalists. The programming at the binational Centro Cultural, a key to USIS activity, expanded as well, drawing in greater and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw English-language books flying off the shelf.
Information propaganda was USIA’s bread and butter, but sharing America’s rich culture was the long game, as my father’s contemporary Ambassador Samuel R. Gannon would later recount:
You make all your mileage out of culture, the long-term, slow moving crafty exploitation of the parts of your culture that have made you worthy of respect and admiration.
Nat King Cole and other cultural ambassadors visit
Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the junta settled into the business of governing. Taking advantage of the calm in the wake of revolutionary violence, USIA in Washington beefed up the cultural envoy trips. The great Nat King Cole arrived for a series of concerts, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana, followed by Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and composer Aaron Copeland flew in for an afternoon of music and conversation at the Centro Cultural.
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. At the press conference before the event, Dad got a kick out of helping Bernstein work his renowned charm on the local press. The headlines in the newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.”
Diplomatic normal life resumed
Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at dinners, arts events, and other opportunities to engage with Venezuelans while Susie and I stayed home with Fina.
In the afternoons, my mother took Susie and me to the pool at the Circulo Militar, the private military club that diplomats were deemed members of. Paddling in the shallow end, with Mom holding me up by the back of my suit, I had no idea I was enjoying a priviledge, just as I would take for granted throughout my childhood that my diplomatic passport would sweep me to the head of the line at customs.
Years later, my passport no longer special and relegated to the same line as everyone else when returning to the United States after overseas travel, I cringed to see how we treat visitors to our country.
Every day since I woke up an Amsterdam ICU in 2019, I’ve been in training, training for life. It’s no longer about one race. It’s about staying in this game of life, as well as I can, for as long as I can.
I used to train for running races
When I was in my 20s and living in New York City, I took up recreational running as it was just taking off. I put in the training miles on early-morning runs along the East River, and my husband joined me for weekend runs in Central Park. Soon, we were participating in races organized by the New York Road Runners under Fred Lebow, co-founder of the NYC Marathon. My husband and I both completed half-marathons, but my most notable running moment was shaking the hand of legendary Norwegian marathoner Grete Waitz’ on a Manhattan sidewalk. Her gracious manner and winning ways made her the completely approachable queen of New York City.
I stopped running, stopped training
Plantar fasciitis put an end to running as my go-to activity fifteen years ago. Although I continued to exercise, mostly in the water, I stopped thinking of it as training. It was about looking better, or getting thinner, or feeling stronger. I took it for granted that I would simply keep going.
Illness stopped me in my tracks
All that changed on May 5, 2019, when I was stopped in my tracks in Amsterdam by a ruptured aneurysm. For six weeks, my body battled to survive. When I woke up, I was rail thin — okay, yes, my first thought was YIPEE! —and unable to move.
Muscle atrophy comes on fast when you are intubated, and if I hadn’t been strong to start with, it’s very likely I would not have made it.
Then, I was back in training
Everything — leaving the ICU, returning to the United States, living independently in our South Florida home, navigating the world again — everything depended on me recovering my ability to move.
Moving my tongue, my jaw, my neck to be able to chew and swallow, and strengthening my fingers to be able to feed myself. Getting my arms able to lift myself, my torso able to sit up, my hips able to roll me over. Standing up with help. Standing up alone. Walking with help. Striding alone.
I did it all. I got back to living my life.
Surprise return to running
In relearning how to stand and to walk, and through my daily 60-minute exercise routine of walking, stretching, swimming, biking and strength training — I’ve improved my body mechanics. As I recently wrote, I’ve built back better, with a mid-foot heel strike that is easier on the feet. As a result, I no longer have heel pain, and, a couple of times a week I’ve even been able to get back into jogging.
It might be an old-lady shuffle, but from where I was two years ago, this is running!
Physical activity as medicine
This week, I also came to understand physical activity as medicine, thanks to the legacy of my hero, Grete Waitz. I learned that she was just one year older than me, and that she died a decade ago of cancer, the same disease as took NYRR’s Fred Lebow in 1994.
Grete continued running as she was treated for cancer, and her belief in the therapeutic value of physical activity led her to found AKTIV Against Cancer, a foundation whose mission it is to have physical activity become part of cancer treatment, just as exercise is prescribed for people with Type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
My parents watched the procession of looters shuffled by, the sounds of their humble slippers, the Venezuelan alpargatas, mimicking the sound of prairie wheat blown by the wind. The parade disappeared into the night. In just hours, dawn would peak over the Andes, ushering in the first day of Venezuela’s freedom from tyranny.
“It’s going to be a long day,” my father said. ”Might as well get a little sleep.”
My mother lay at his side, eyes shut and mind wide open. Never in a million years had she imagined while growing up in Winona, Minnesota that she’d be a 30-year-old part-time diplomat, mother of two bilingual kids, and boss to a live-in maid, trying desperately to figure out how was she going to her household through a South American revolution.
Dad muttered something in his sleep, and Mom rested her hand on his shoulder. The baby-faced blond GI who’d wooed her at Macalester College had charmed her with his intelligence, wit, and gift of gab, and she knew that her smile, chestnut hair, and dancer’s grace made them look elegant wherever they were. He’d been looking for adventure, and boyohboy they were in it now.
The pitter-patter of little feet told Mom that I was up and in search of Fina, leaving Susie to sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. Mom roused herself to get the coffee water on, an old habit.
Fina had become my world when she rescued me, wailing, from the spot between the bed and the wall I wedged myself into the day my parents and I were at the home of another Embassy family. In short order, Fina had moved in with us, and I had my first full-time playmate. Spanish was my first language. After my sister arrived, I knew I could still steal my Fina time first thing in the day.
I danced into the kitchen in my pink robe and Venezuelan alpargatas sandals. Like baby Susie, my fair hair and blue eyes revealed my parents’ Norwegian heritage. “Buenos días, Mommy!”
Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She kissed the top of head, remembering our first year in Caracas when my scant hair and lack of pierced ears had caused caraqueños to think I was a boy. She gave me a squeeze before depositing me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table.
Josefina walked in, smoothing the skirt of her cotton dress and tucking back a strand of her black hair. She had on one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit Fina had worn when she first came to work for us. Mom would have no mourning clothes here. To my mother’s midwestern sensibility, somber clothing was appropriate for funerals but not for the everyday wardrobe. Cheerfulness would be the order of the day.
“Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need to get her going again.
The living room phone rang. Dad spoke into the receiver briefly.
“Well, looks like we’ll make it,” Dad called out.
“That’s good,” Mom said, waiting for more.
Fina tied on her apron. “Señora.” She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. “¿Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.
Mom smiled to herself, remembering Fina’s first days with us, when she’d carried the box of Betty Crocker cake mix to the breakfast table thinking it was cereal. “Gracias, Fina,” she said, and joined Dad in the living room.
“Well, things are settling down,” he said, “but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”
“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.
“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these kids, commie-trained maybe, have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that. They’re directing traffic all over town.”
“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said.
“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy,” Dad said.
Fina brought in their coffee. “¿Algo más?”
“No, gracias, Fina,” Mom said.
The maid nodded and returned to the kitchen where I waited to chat away about our day’s plans. I had no idea anything was going, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. Happy and normal.
“So,” Dad continued, “Things will be more crazy as Caraqueños realize the shackles are gone. Best we stay off the streets for a while longer.”
And so our little family spent the rest of the day indoors. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of Grandma Amerson’s lemon bars, and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rats that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmints away during my grandparents’ visit.
The day limped along. Mom typed her weekly letter to her parents. Susie and I played store with Fina in Spanish, had lunch, napped, played dress-up in Mom’s old modern dance costumes and Fina’s Sunday shoes, had dinner. After our baths, we cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. If you ignored the radio, it would have been just another family day at home.
But it was my father’s job to stay tuned in. As the press attaché, Dad had developed a wide network of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors, academics, and political players. The American press included trusted contacts as well, like Tad Szulc of the New York Times, who covered the growing resistance to Pérez Jiménez. Many of the Venezuelan journalists and professors Dad first met in 1955 had become involved in clandestine work against the military dictator. Periodically, things would come to a head in their conversations, the Venezuelans questioning how America, beacon of democracy, could support the tyrant. Dad’s personal sentiments bled through his official response.
Now that the reviled Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown, Dad would be able to celebrate the success of the revolution with his contacts.
If they survived. The radio blared the latest: shots had been fired as a mob surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded national police.1
1Pérez Jiménez’ Seguridad Nacional enforced press censorship, restricted organized labor, and banned political opposition. (Amerson, Robert. How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995. p. 4)
His newly-minted BA in electronic engineering secured my friend and neighbor Oscar a coveted summer internship with Amazon — that is, unless an offer from the aerospace giant McDonnell steals him away to fulfill his childhood fantasy of building spaceships. Either way, it’s a promising start for a new college grad with a 4.0 GPA.
What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Oscar is in his 50s. This is his second BA and his third career. And he thanks failure for making it all possible.
Oscar, who is from Colombia, spent his formative years inspired by the machinery of a steel mill company town, where the amenities were plentiful and the freedom to explore was unlimited. His academic and leadership skills made him a star at home and in the community.
I was the president of the school theater club, the captain of the swim team, and the provincial director of the Red Cross. I was the center of the universe.
Grew up too fast
When Oscar moved to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, for college, he quickly realized that being the solitary high-achiever — the big fish in a small pond — had not prepared him for the challenges of university life.
He hadn’t learned how to do the normal childhood things, like playing or hanging out with friends. And the rest of the students had gone to prestigious private schools, where they’d learned English well enough to handle the American engineering textbooks.
I was at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t know shit about anything.
Academic failure and renewal
Distracted by weekend volunteer work that tapped into his leadership skills, Oscar soon found himself on academic probation. His mother interpreted the situation as the system’s failure and scraped the funds together to have Oscar study English in the United States. He stretched those limited funds to cover a full academic year and returned to Colombia with a command of English, a new networking ability, and renewed purpose.
Oscar sailed through the rest of his college work and graduated with a degree in electronic engineering.
Oscar’s first job out of college in Colombia was as a software engineer designing the systems that made ”point of sale” terminals work.
The sound of a terminal printing a receipt still makes me ridiculously happy.
However, when it came to innovation and money, engineering proved a dead end. The opportunity was in sales. Oscar pitched his skills to high tech companies, inventing Latin American sales jobs for himself with Colombian, then American, and finally, Chinese companies.
I went over to the dark side for 25 years.
He was a self-made success, supporting his wife and children in their new South Florida life.
Business failure, reinvention
But, as the tech business shifted to China, initiative and hard work could not overcome an inflexible business model and haphazard customer support half a world away.
When fifty percent of your success doesn’t depend on you, that’s an awful feeling.
Oscar toiled away against diminishing returns until, exhausted and defeated, he found himself unemployed at age 51.
Oscar had one special asset: his wife, Coni. She had seen her husband in his glory leading Red Cross volunteers in Colombia, and she suggested that he return to the work that had brought him so much satisfaction. He’d supported their family while she was home with their children, learning English, and developing a career, and now it was her turn to support him.
After a quarter century of non-stop travel and never-ending problems, the simplicity of helping a hurting person sounded like a balm. Oscar decided to become a paramedic.
Physical failure, reinvention
Oscar quickly secured his EMT certification, but being a paramedic in Florida requires getting firefighter certification as well. Oscar, still an accomplished athlete, welcomed the challenge, knowing that he would be ”the old man” of the class. He made it through six months of grueling training under the blistering tropical sun, wearing heavy gear and lugging even heavier equipment, as his body grew haggard and his skin pale from exhaustion. Only weeks from completing the certification, he felt his shoulder rip. Unable to use his arm, he was out.
But Oscar would not quit. After extensive physical therapy, against medical advice and knowing full well the risks, he reenlisted in the rigorous program. Six more exhausting months, and his body again failed him. He was done.
My physical abilities have always defined me. But here I was, for the first time in my life, unable to finish something I started.
Back to engineering dreams
As her husband nursed his physical and psychological wounds, Coni again saw a way forward: Oscar should continue his engineering education.
When Coni said I should go back to school, I said, “I can’t do that.” But she kept encouraging me. And so I did.
All those years of experience did not translate into current engineering knowledge, so Oscar found himself starting from scratch with challenging coursework. And he was twice the age of the other students.
But Coni was right. He is really good at this stuff, and the joy he has found in recovering his academic skills infuses his life. He is beloved by his classmates and respected by his professors, on tap for a prestigious internship, and back to being an early-morning regular in our community gym and swimming pool.
Thank God that I could not finish my paramedic training. It would never have been enough.
My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”
Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said.
The maid headed to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch next to Dad, her hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.
“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive when we’d arrived in Venezuela.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”
“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”
“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.
My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected a still-evolving scenario. That the completely united army had overthrown the regime. That some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit. That there was violence downtown. Excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.
“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”
Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”
He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952. The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore.
The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues.
“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee.
“¿Algo mas?” the maid said.
My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.”
The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room.
My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa.
Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,”
My mother snapped to high alert.
“We may want to hide the car,” he said.
“Hide the car?”
“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”
“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.
“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”
“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”
“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”
My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”
My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire?
My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock.
Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.
“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”
Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.
She climbed back into bed.
“Everyone okay?” Dad said.
They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on.
As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.
“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”
Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela